By Margaret Voelzke
For most children, every fall brings new classes, new teachers and new friends.
But for some Rockbridge County students, this year began with a whole new school. They moved from Rockbridge Middle School to a renovated and expanded Maury River Middle School on Sept. 3.
“There is a lot of anxiety when it comes to opening a new school and consolidating, but I’ve heard nothing but positive comments,” said Maury River Principal Phillip Thompson.
One positive of the move, Thompson said, was that no teachers from Rockbridge Middle lost their jobs in the consolidation.
Bonnie Fix is a lifelong Rockbridge County resident who taught language arts and United States history at Rockbridge Middle School for 16 years. Only one part of the move to Maury River made her anxious.
“The hardest part was waiting [for subject assignments],” she said. “The district did not want to tell us what we were teaching for several months …. There was a lot of miscommunication in the county.”
But Fix and her colleagues are teaching the same subjects at Maury River that they taught at Rockbridge Middle. For her, the process has gone well.
“This has been a really good experience, and I have to say it has not been a huge ordeal for us,” she said. “The kids have blended together …. Most of the kids I have talked to have been really happy.”
It cost about $28 million to update and expand the school building to accommodate the county’s 548 middle school students. Today, just 40 percent of the old school remains. Even with the construction costs, county officials say, merging the schools will save money over time.
Like the teachers, parents of Maury River students are impressed by the renovations and how well the transition has gone.
“If anything my older daughter said she wished she was still in middle school so she could see the school,” said Ruth Ann Hildreth. Her daughter Sarah, who is still at Maury River, sees the new campus is an adventure.
“It’s fun, getting to walk around the new school and figure out how everything is,” Sarah said.
“A lot of thought has gone into the consolidation,” said Wendy Lovell, whose daughter Taylor is in the eighth grade at Maury River. “They have done a wonderful job of making both former communities very comfortable about coming to the school.”
For Taylor Lovell, the changes were obvious. She attended Maury River before the construction.
Thompson, who has been at Maury River for seven years, is grateful.
“There’s a lot of pride in this,” he said. “I was fortunate to be involved in just about every aspect at some level, from the first few conversations to the architectural drawings and through the whole construction phase.”
Students and teachers are still sharing space with workers as they complete landscaping, painting and other details. Thompson predicts the entire campus will be done by the end of October.
The continued construction has not stopped Lovell and her daughter from admiring the new facilities.
“It’s gorgeous. It is absolutely a very inspiring place to go to school,” Lovell said. “My daughter’s science room is incredible. I would guess it is as nice as some of the lab facilities at Washington and Lee (University).”
Thompson acknowledged that many parents and faculty members were anxious over the summer months about what fall would bring.
A big concern was whether class sizes would increase.
“The school board had a goal of … 20 students to every one teacher,” Thompson said. “Right now we’re under that … probably down to about 15 to one.”
Students like Sarah Hildreth are less concerned with class sizes and more excited about the new faces.
“Our classes are mixed pretty good, so everyone is making a lot of new friends,” she said.
Lovell said the new building also makes trade programs like agriculture and drafting more readily available to younger students.
“They have an agricultural program that is fantastic,” Lovell said. And she thinks expanded technical training “is going to be such a great benefit not only to our students, but to our local businesses who will … have students coming out of the high school who are better prepared because they have had a longer time to learn those trades and get the background that they need to continue their education and be successful.”
For Thompson, the hard work it took to open the doors of Maury River to new and returning students was worth it.
“To now see it kind of come to fruition and have the kids here and to have the teachers here in this beautiful state of the art facility is a wonderful feeling,” he said. “It’s great.”